Last week, we took a look at the best way to use 500px to improve your photography. Today, we're going to take that a step further and talk about the need to critique photos online.
Yes, I know. You've been told not to do it by well-meaning people. That advice misses the point of why you should critique photos online, though.
Let's start with a simple definition of the word “critique” so we're all on the same page.
When we critique photos online, our objective isn't to rip it apart. We want to analyze and understand it. In our specific case, we want to determine why we like or dislike a photo. Most of the photos I see simply don't move me, so it's a genuine pleasure when I find a photograph that truly impresses me. It's the exception instead of the rule.
The reason I want to critique photos online is rather selfish. It's so I can understand the qualities of the photo that I can replicate and use in my own photos.
Looking at a pretty photo is a nice reward, but the value comes from understanding it. The critique isn't meant to be harsh, or even shared. All you're doing is providing yourself an exercise in critical thinking using someone else's photos.
Elements Of A Critique
Anyone can look at a nice photo and say “I like it.” Ask them why they like it and you may get a look like you just kicked sand on their lollipop. That's because you just shifted their brain from emotional to logical thinking. Suddenly, they've lost the moment. Not always, though. You may hear some superficial descriptions like “It's a beautiful place” or “She's a pretty model.”
We've probably all seen ugly photos of a beautiful place or a pretty model. That's enough to tell you that you need more than an attractive subject, but what are those elements?
You need to make a list. Don't worry if it isn't complete when you start. Use it as a guideline to get started so you can critique photos online. As you gain more experience and your own critical thinking kicks into gear, add elements to the list.
Here are a few things to get you started.
- Is the subject interesting?
- Composition of the photo
- Direction of light
- Use of shadows
- Are there distracting elements?
- Use of color
- Use of space
- What gear did they use?
- If there is a face, does the expression say anything? (works for animals as well as people)
- Is the gesture natural or intriguing
- Does the post-processing affect your perception?
- Does the photo have pleasing lines or flow?
- Does the light direct your eye to the most interesting subject, or take you away from it?
- Do you wish something was different about the photo?
Every single one of the items on my list can lead me down a path of refinement to ask more questions. For example, let's go over the item for “Are there distracting elements?”
Having spent a lot of time in the past few months looking at models and portraits, I've found a few things that just bug me. The first thing on the list? Armpits. I'm sick and tired of models showing their armpits. I don't get it, but you see armpits everywhere. In my mind, that's not their most endearing quality.
When I look at a photo of a model, male or female, I want to see a face. It doesn't have to even be a pretty face. I'm happy with an interesting face. I like a face that tells me something about the person. For example, this photo of a farm worker I met in Cuba, Jesus.
This is a simple headshot, but it tells you something about the man. He works hard and lives in a simple environment. He's a man of the land.
Now I ask you, would this photo be better if he bent is elbow over his head and showed you his armpit? Not in my opinion, and I get the same notion when I see beautiful models do it. It's a posing choice that, in my opinion, isn't doing them any favors.
There may be exceptions if the photo seems to have a reason for their arms to be up. In most cases, it's an unnatural and awkward pose. When a model makes that choice, I'll keep shooting. When the moment is right, I'll try to guide the pose back to something without an armpit.
That's only one example from my list, but you may have others that distract you. During a critique with Mike Kubeisy a couple of years ago, he put a horrible thought in my head. I showed him a photo of a model who had her hand up by her head. He asked if she had a toothache. Then he explained that's what he thinks when he sees models with the palm of their hand on their face and now, sadly, that's what I think when I see the same thing.
In most cases, it's unnatural. Combine that face-palm with a dull expression and she really does look like she's in pain. What do you feel when a photo makes you want to get an aspirin for the subject?
Why You Should Critique Photos Online
You should give your own photos a good review, but that's not enough. It's important to look at the work of others so you can measure your own growth as a photographer. While it may help you get ideas for future photoshoots, the real benefit is developing an understanding of what you should be doing as a photographer.
The truth is that you aren't just a photographer. You're also a producer. It's up to you to plan and direct as much as you can to create the images you want.
That's true no matter what type of photography you do. Some things may be fixed in place. You can't direct a mountain to look menacing or friendly. However, you can choose the time of day or year when you go to photograph the mountain. Do you want a snow, green pastures, sunset, clear blue skies? Those are choices you make, not the mountain.
When I travel, I look for photos of local subjects and give them the same critique I described above. I want to know the best time of day or year to shoot. I want to see what angles worked and which ones looked awkward. Will it look better in color or black and white? Are their distracting elements nearby? There are some places on Earth where you always see the exact same composition because it's the only one that looks good. Move a smidgen to either side and you get a garbage dumpster or a McDonald's in your shot. Maybe the shot only works with a 50mm lens. You may not even know why everyone is shooting the same shot until you get there.
One More Thing…
I mentioned that many people will tell you not to critique photos online. There's a reason for that message. When a person posts a photo online, they are not submitting it for your public review. It's OK to analyze every photo you see, but please keep your comments to yourself unless someone requests your critique. People post photos – even bad photos – for pleasure and enjoyment. Don't rob someone of that joy just because you see something.
A month or so ago, I posted a photo of a model on some social media sites. Over on Flickr, it was picked up by Explore and garnered thousands of views overnight. Over on Google+, some asshole came along and asked if that shine on her nose bothered me. Guess which experience stuck with me?
A little unsolicited feedback can have a very strong impact. So my advice is to keep quiet if you have nothing positive to say. Use your critique to help yourself, but don't burden anyone else with your thoughts if you find something that bugs you. The idea to critique photos online is to help your own development, not to steal someone's joy.